"Fascinating Examples of Independent 1970s American Horror Cinema"
Just over three years after volume one found its way onto our shelves, it's a delight to welcome the second instalment in Stephen Thrower's valuable American Horror Project, dedicated to preserving some of the more obscure items put together by independent American moviemakers during the 1970s (the only decade so far covered by the series but who knows what we may get in the future?).
As I mentioned in my review for Volume One, these are all films made by people working outside the Hollywood system, or indeed often any kind of system at all. Sometimes the directors in question only ever made one film before going back to their day jobs (or before being captured and returned to their longterm care facilities for all we know). Often quirky, frequently interesting (if only for their sheer bizarreness), and always low-budget, there still remains a wealth of weird and obscure US films out there that deserve to be brought to the attention of a (slightly) wider audience than those who already know about them.
Once again, as in Volume One, the package contains three films in a gorgeously presented set. Here's what we get this time around:
Dream No Evil (1970)
First up is this slightly odd (and oddly slight) movie that was the first of three horror films made by director John Hayes, the other two being GARDEN OF THE DEAD and GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (both 1972).
Grace McDonald (Brooke Mills), having been rescued ten years ago from an orphanage by the Bundy family, is now engaged to Patrick Bundy (Paul Prokop) who is busy studying at medical school. Meanwhile Grace takes part in a travelling show with Patrick's preacher brother Jessie (Michael Pataki going full tilt at the lectern in this one) where she has to dive thirty feet onto a massive cushion to illustrate a literal descent into hell.
Grace is obsessed with finding her missing father Timothy (Edmond O'Brien). She eventually does, only to learn he has recently died. Or has he? While Grace watches, Timothy gets up from the embalming table, kills the undertaker (Marc "I didn't know there was a pool down there" Lawrence from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) and goes with Grace back to their farm, where the murders don't stop.
DREAM NO EVIL is a very gentle, measured piece that's a world apart from the typical exploitation product of the time. It takes a while for the plot to kick in, and with its voice-over narrator helping to explain things, at times it feels like a Season One episode of THE OUTER LIMITS. I think it's a more accomplished and consistent piece than the rather jerky and fragmented (and much better known) GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE. Just don't expect too much from it.
Extras include a filmed appreciation by Stephen Thrower, who also narrates a thirty minute video essay on the career of director Hayes up to 1971. Chris Poggiali gives us twenty minutes on the career of star Edmond O'Brien, there's an audio interview with frequent Hayes collaborator Rue McClanahan, and an audio commentary from Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan.
Dark August (1976)
There's something of M R James and even more of early Robert Altman about Martin Goldman's Vermont-shot micro budget horror picture. City boy Sal (J J Barry) moves to the country and accidentally runs over and kills a young girl (played by director Goldman's daughter). Her grandfather puts a curse on Sal and he finds himself being followed by a shadowy cowled figure.
Or is he? Sal has a lot of problems, not least paranoia and extreme anxiety. Despite being cleared by the ensuing court case his guilt over the girl's death constantly threatens to overwhelm him. Eventually he seeks the help of a local shaman (Kim Hunter) who promises to conduct a ritual to help him. But does it work?
With an even more measured, slow and deliberate pace to it than DREAM NO EVIL, like that film DARK AUGUST is another movie that's more art house than exploitation. It's the characters that are important here, and the everyday problems they have to deal with that may just have been added to by a vengeful spirit. How much you'll like it will depend on your predilection for character-led pieces with little in the way of the standard horror tropes of the period to liven things up.
Extras include a Stephen Thrower appreciation, a director commentary, a piece by Stephen Bissette in which he catalogues a mammoth number of movies that have either been made in Vermot or which contain Vermont references, and interviews with director Goldman and producer Marianne Kanter.
The Child (1977)
It's time to play hide and go kill in 2K as we get to watch a true one-off from a director (Robert Voskanian) who sadly never got to make another feature. Of the three films under consideration here, THE CHILD is by far the goriest, the quirkiest, and the most off-kilter. Consequently it's my favourite of the bunch.
Pretty Alicianne (Laurel Barnett) arrives at a rambling old house in the country to take up her new post as governess to eleven year old Rosalie (Rosalie Cole). We already know Rosalie is bad news because we've seen her feeding a kitten to a living corpse underneath the credits (a movie first. In fact probably a movie only).
Rosalie has the power to animate the dead, whom she terms her friends, but she's not above causing the local creepy scarecrow to go walkabout as well. The protracted climax involves a battle with the living dead and a typical 1970s ending.
Don't for one minute let the above summary lead you to think THE CHILD is in any way an ordinary or normal film. There isn't a minute of this that isn't weird in some way, from camera angles to dialogue delivery, gory makeup effects to the weird music score that swings between lush piano and blippy bloppy electronic noises. THE CHILD is a remarkable, weird, disorientating unique piece of cinema, beautifully restored by Arrow. If you need a reason to get this set it's this.
Extras include an appreciation by Stephen Thrower, who also moderates the new audio commentary track featuring director Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian. There are also new interviews with Voskanian and Dadashian, plus a trailer and the original press book.
THE CHILD aside, the emphasis of AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOL. 2 is on movies that depict main characters affected by subtle, quiet ,creeping dread. Prior to receiving this set I had never heard of DREAM NO EVIL or DARK AUGUST and having now watched them it's easy to see why. Whereas back in 1977 posters for THE CHILD were in every horror movie publication, the more ethereal nature of the other two pictures suggests they would have been much harder sells, with distribution consequently extremely limited. Which just makes this set all the more valuable for giving them to us in these lovely restored 2K transfers. Arrow are to be congratulated for rescuing such titles from obscurity. At one point Stephen Thrower remarks that he wishes every American small town had made a horror movie. So do I, Stephen. Let's hope we get to see more of the ones that were actually made in future sets of AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT.
Arrow's AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOLUME 2 is out on Blu-ray on Monday 24th June 2019